Human agency takes many forms; the loss of a sense of agency is highlighted in December 2015 Atlantic article about Palo Alto

In a previous post I’ve spoken about the concept of human agency – the sense a person may have, of being able to influence events:

Aside from addressing bullying, Marjorie H. Goodwin (2006) focuses on collaboration and political agency

Goodwin analyzes video recordings of schoolyard interactions and then creates script based upon them. The scripts, based upon analysis of the interactions from the perspective of linguistic anthropology, are of much interest but not that easy to follow, at least in my case as a layperson.

I think it would be great to see videos that are made from the scripts, perhaps based upon the scripts that Goodwin has published. Such videos would make it much easier to follow the scripts, and would enable a person to study the interactions, alongside the scripts, while at the same time maintaining privacy of information as it relates to the real people, the students, who are the subject of Goodwin’s research.

I’ve addressed these topics in a previous post entitled: Ethnography, journalism, filmmaking, and screenwriting.

I thought at once of Goodwin’s work when I read the following paragraph December 2015 article in The Atlantic, entitled The Silicon Valley Suicides:

“Since Levine wrote The Price of Privilege, she’s watched the stress in the Bay Area and in affluent communities all over the country become more pervasive and more acute. What disturbs her most is that the teenagers she sees no longer rebel. A decade ago, she used to referee family fights in her office, she told me, where the teens would tell their parents, ‘This is bad for me! I’m not doing this.’ Now, she reports, the teenagers have no sense of agency. They still complain bitterly about all the same things, but they feel they have no choice. Many have also fallen prey to what Lvine calls a ‘mass delusion’ that there is but one path to a successful life, and that it is very narrow. Adoles­cents no longer typically identify parents or peers as the greatest source of their stress, Levine says. They point to school. But that itself may suggest a submission of sorts – the unquestioned adoption of parental norms.”

Silicon Valley

I have highlighted divergent narratives concerning Silicon Valley in previous posts including:

Steven High (2003) highlights the Machine in the Garden aesthetic of postwar factory design

By way of an update regarding such narratives, a Nov. 29, 2015 Guardian article is entitled: “Silicon Valley exploits time and space to extend the frontiers of capitalism.”

Terms of Service (2015)

Another useful reference is: Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection (2015), which highlights the distinction between rhetoric and reality as it relates to advances in information technology. The latter study speaks on behalf of digital skepticism; as author Jacob Silverman notes (p. xi), social media presents both positive and negative features:

“Because digital skep­ticism is not about a reflexive criticism of the latest consumer gadgets and Internet technologies. It’s about political economy, labor rights, how digital technologies change our culture and us as social beings, how they create new economic and social divides even as they claim to demolish others. This much-needed skepticism is against the parlous influence of those with money. It offers a doubting perspective on the grandiose claims of Silicon Valley titans and a sympathetic treatment of those who find the new digital culture stultifying or overwhelming. That’s where the allegiances of this book lie – with those who don’t have power, who don’t have anything to sell.”

[End of excerpt]

The above-noted article makes no claim to have a clearly defined answer to suicide trends in Palo Alto. That being said, the article is of much interest in exploring a number of factors that may be at play.

Blurb for Terms of Service (2015)

A blurb for the above-noted study reads:

“Social networking has grown into a staple of modern society, but its continued evolution is becoming increasingly detrimental to our lives. Shifts in communication and privacy are affecting us more than we realize or understand. Terms of Service crystalizes this current moment in technology and contemplates its implications: the identity-validating pleasures and perils of online visibility; our newly adopted view of daily life through the lens of what is share-worthy; and the surveillance state operated by social media platforms – Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others – to mine our personal data for advertising revenue, an invasion of our lives that is as pervasive as government spying.

“Jacob Silverman calls for social media users to take back ownership of their digital selves from the Silicon Valley corporations who claim to know what’s best for them. Integrating politics, sociology, national security, pop culture, and technology, he reveals the surprising conformity at the heart of Internet culture – explaining how social media companies engineer their products to encourage shallow engagement and discourage dissent. Reflecting on the collapsed barriers between our private and public lives, Silverman brings into focus the inner conflict we feel when deciding what to share and what to ‘like,’ and explains how we can take the steps we need to free ourselves from its grip.”

Human agency

The concept of human agency fascinates me because in the course of my life I’ve come to realize that having a sense of agency means that we can, in a small or larger measure, have some influence in making the world a better (or worse, as the case may be) place than otherwise would be the case.

Jacob Silverman in. Terms of Service (2015) addresses agency in the following passage (pp. xii – xiii):

“It would also serve us well to put some human agency back into the narrative. Too often defenders of the technological status quo – which is the same as the consumerist status quo – deflect criticism with a couple of banal, if tactically useful, responses: ‘You’ll get used to it’ or ‘This is just the way things are headed.’ This isn’t really an argument, but it’s effective. So too is the frequent claim that the introduction of new consumer technologies has created discord and confusion in the past, but we got over it then. We dealt with it and moved on; society adapted (for better or worse, one would rather not speculate). It’s true that radio and the telephone inspired utopian and apocalyptic pronouncements in equal measure and that neither came to pass. But this is also an argument for passivity, for assuming that technologies have some inherent path and will find some natural accommodation with society. It is also, if one takes a more jaundiced view, an argument for deferring to powerful corporations to determine the proper role of their inventions. And it assumes that every application of new technology is coincident with progress.

“Maybe some of this sounds familiar. But it is this very back and forth that is necessary, even if it recalls the debates of the past. We must shore up the levees against those forces -consumerism, irrational exuberance, the corruptions of power – that erode them. There is nothing predetermined about Facebook’s role in public life or in compromising our privacy. It doesn’t have to happen. It can be pushed back against by informed criticism, government regulation, and our own practices as consumers. We can help determine the course of these technologies and how they affect us as human beings. There’s a reason that Facebook’s facial recognition system isn’t enabled for European customers but is for Americans. The EU and European nations, by and large, have stronger consumer privacy protections, owing to the Continent’s history of authoritarian governments, invasive surveillance and, more recently, social-democratic governance. That doesn’t mean that Facebook won’t find opportunities to take advantage of European consumers in other ways, or to eventually make facial recognition a key part of its product there. But European government policies have worked, at least better than our own. There are things we can do to push back, and skepticism and criticism are a necessary part of this process. There is nothing assured about the march of Facebook; the company could collapse in a decade, like so many tech giants before it. What will we do then? Will we sit back and marvel at the next charismatic mogul pushing a magical product upon us?”

[End of excerpt]


A Jan. 10, 2015 Tech Crunch article is entitled: “East Of Palo Alto’s Eden: Race And The Formation Of Silicon Valley.”

A March 7, 2017 CBC The Current article is entitled; “‘Capitalism on steroids’: How big tech is gentrifying the Golden City.”

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